From The Editor | October 13, 2015

5 On 5: Water Leaders Address Key Industry Challenges

By Kevin Westerling,


At a recent panel event, five of the top utility professionals in North America tackled five hot topics in water and wastewater.

Every profession has their superstars, and the water industry is no different. Five of these stars shared the same stage recently to share insight on some of the biggest challenges facing water and wastewater utilities — insight I am happy to share as one of the fortunate attendees. The ‘superstars’ and the host of the event, water technology provider Ovivo, wouldn’t want it any other way; the community of utility professionals unites around the common goal of clean and sustainable water, both at the tap and throughout the environment.

Held in late September on the eve of WEFTEC, North America’s largest water technology conference and exposition, the “Utilities of the Future” event featured the following industry experts:

  • David St. Pierre, executive director, Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD)
  • Kerrie Romanow, director, Environmental Services Department, City of San Jose
  • Tom Kula, executive director, North Texas Municipal Water District (NTMWD)
  • George Hawkins, CEO and general manager, DC Water
  • Lou Di Gironimo, general manager, Toronto Water

The moderator, Dr. Glen Daigger (himself an industry ‘superstar’), posed five questions, each representing a pressing and common utility challenge as determined by an Ovivo poll. The questions, along with conclusions from the panel, are compiled below.

  1. As agencies take more aggressive positions on effluent limits, do you believe regulations are going too far for nitrogen and phosphorus?

David St. Pierre and George Hawkins, leaders of two of the country’s largest wastewater treatment plants (or, as they prefer, “water resource recovery facilities”), both recognized that the problem of nutrients in waterways is largely due to nonpoint sources — i.e., not treatment plant discharges.

“Regulations have to continue, but we need to shift from ‘one size fits all’ to developing technologies for specific applications,” said St. Pierre, referring to the varied nature and concentration of nutrients from nonpoint sources.

[The agriculture industry, with runoff from fertilizer and animal waste, is a notable nonpoint discharger.]

Hawkins suggested that regulations aimed solely at treatment plants to reduce nutrient loads are missing the point (or ‘nonpoint,’ actually).

“The cost of removing one increment of nutrients has gone up 100(-fold) in the last 10 years [at DC Water],” he noted.

Indeed, as utility expenses skyrocket in an attempt to remove one more part per million, nonpoint sources often go unchecked.

Lamented Hawkins: “If all of our plants were at zero [nutrients], it wouldn’t clean up the problems that we have.”

  1. How will utilities address PPCPs (pharmaceuticals and personal care products), particularly difficult-to-treat microbeads?

There was also shared thinking among panel members on PPCP contaminants, which can be very expensive to remove; wastewater treatment plants simply aren’t equipped for what cosmetics manufacturers are developing and discharging. Practically speaking, there is a better approach than installing new to deal with these emerging contaminants…

“We need to think more broadly about what we allow on the [store] shelf,” suggested San Jose’s Kerrie Romanow.

“The cost [of treatment/remediation] should fall on the microbeads manufacturer,” agreed Hawkins.

And, in fact, there have been calls to ban the pesky particulates.

Concurring with Hawkins and Romanow, St. Pierre drew an analogy comparing water stewardship to preventative healthcare. “Treatment plants are like hospitals for water,” he said. “Maybe we should treat the patient before it gets to the hospital.”

  1. What will the impact of an aging workforce be on utilities, and how can the industry attract younger talent?

All five panelists expressed the dire need to recruit and retain talented employees, or as North Texas’ Tom Kula dubbed them, “solutioneers.” Kula shared his experience at NTMWD, which has a strategic hiring plan that emphasizes core values that must be shared by the utility and the prospective employee, and a strong focus (and much time) devoted to keeping good employees on board.

But how do you attract worthy candidates to the profession?

Lou Di Gironimo detailed Toronto Water’s innovative hiring program, whereby engineers are hired out of high school and perform four different job roles in four years. The engineer then chooses which job of the four they would like to pursue — an attractive proposition for uncertain young professionals, and a successful approach for Toronto.

San Jose sees the recent need for a new generation of workers as an opportunity to invest in the future, focusing on graduating high schoolers to fill the void while training them quickly. A new training curriculum was developed and modern tools such as software programs and iPads were purchased in order to hasten and improve the training process.

Romanow’s vision for the future is one where the water utility is “cool and hip like Google and Tesla, [where] people will be banging down our door to work for us.”

  1. What are the drivers for resource recovery, and what criteria are you using to evaluate different solutions?

Hawkins expressed his philosophy — true to the ‘water resource recovery facility’ model — that there is “no such thing as waste, just wasted resources.”

DC Water practices what Hawkins preaches and has invested $500 million of discretionary funds to finance a biosolids project featuring Cambi thermal hydrolysis technology — now in full swing. The drivers/goals of the project were to reduce the trucking of sludge by half (from roughly 60 to 30 daily truckloads), produce energy for plant operations, and to create a commercial-grade fertilizer to sell and further support utility operations.

St. Pierre echoed the need for utilities to find and save money on their own. He noted that, generally speaking, federal money is hard to come by and shouldn’t be expected. “Funding won’t come from the federal government, but by how utilities can save money through resource recovery,” he said.

  1. How do we get new technology into our utilities?

“The most important step of project approval is to prove the science,” said Hawkins, adding that there were “30 to 40 papers” developed to prove the technical viability of DC Water’s thermal hydrolysis project. “After that, it became a straightforward financial question.”

For St. Pierre, financial pragmatism rules the day. “We evaluate [technology] in terms of running a business, looking at return on investment,” he stated.

Di Gironimo added that timing is an important element as well. Even when new tech is more efficient, it must come along “at the right time in the life cycle” of the technology it is meant to replace. By and large, you don’t want to replace a 30-year product after 10 years.

Though Di Gironimo acknowledged that “technology permeates every part of our organization,” he was quick to put it in its proper place. “Customer service will really drive change in our industry,” he said. “Technology is secondary.”

Customers are “more savvy,” he pointed out, and technology has to follow suit and be a true benefit to ratepayers. That said, Di Gironimo vets technology with a simple, all-important question: “How will service be enhanced?”

The quote reinforces the fact that whether you’re a ‘superstar’ in the industry or a first-year operator, utility professionals are true public servants.

On stage at the "Utilities of the Future" event, (from left to right) Ovivo President and CEO Marc Barbeau, Glen Daigger, David St. Pierre, Kerrie Romanow, Tom Kula, George Hawkins, and Lou Di Gironimo